In the past, whenever we wanted to raise some chickens for the freezer, we opted for Cornish Crosses. This hybrid bird is bred to gain weight and size with a speed awesome to behold.
The trouble is, these birds are freaky. Their bodies can't withstand the speed of their weight gain, and if you don't butcher them at about eight weeks, they either dislocate or break legs, or their organs start shutting down.
Plus -- and this is important when it comes to food sustainability -- they can't be bred. Don looked into what kind of "cross" a Cornish Cross is, and let's just say their lineage is complex and precise and not effectively reproducible on a homestead without a lot of dedicated work.
We've butchered "dual-purpose" chickens such as Rhode Island Reds, etc., and frankly the result is disappointing -- too small, not much meat, etc.
So -- what are the alternatives when it comes to meat chickens?
Last year we decided to get serious about this question, and looked into a breed called Jersey Giants.
These are heritage chickens who used to be the industry standard for meat birds until the fast-growing (freaky weird) Cornish Crosses supplanted them. Roosters average thirteen pounds, hens average eleven. They're decent egg-layers, extremely docile (they'd better be, at that size!), cold-hardy, and go broody (although the hens are so large they sometimes break the eggs).
According to the Wikipedia article, "The Jersey Giant was created by John and Thomas Black; with the intent of replacing the turkey, the kind of poultry used primarily for meat at the time."
Altogether they sound like an excellent and sustainable source for chicken meat without the weird freakishness of Cornish Crosses. So earlier this week we ordered fifteen birds -- 10 pullets and 5 straight-run (unsexed) chicks, which hopefully will include some roosters. They're due to arrive in early June. We don't intend to butcher many (if any) at first, but instead will start incubating eggs and establishing a flock before putting anyone in the freezer.
I'm excited about this new poultry venture. If it works out, we may transition solely to Jersey Giants and let our current flock die out from attrition.
If anyone has experience with these critters, I'd be interested in hearing your perspective!